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Kathryn Haigh Takes the Reins at the Eiteljorg as First Female CEO

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Kathryn Haigh’s earliest memories are of visits to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Her mom’s close friend was a docent there and Haigh recalls getting dressed up to tour the exhibits.

These museum visits inspired Haigh to focus on fashion design at the University of Cincinnati. By the end of her sophomore year, Haigh discovered that she was a horrible fashion designer. However, the required Art History courses sparked her interest. She knew she needed to change her major, yet she was terrified to share this news with her parents.

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Kathryn Haigh. Photo credit: Adam Gibson Photography.

“When I told my parents, their response was, ‘What are you going to do with that [degree]?’ and I replied, ‘I am going to work at an art museum.’ To which they said, ‘Good luck, those jobs are pretty hard to get.’ And they were right, but it was the best decision I ever made,” shares Haigh.

The statements by Haigh’s parents were prophetic to a point, as the declinations for positions poured in due to Haigh’s inexperience and/or young age. Haigh, while working for an ad agency, continued interviewing at museums and galleries and volunteered at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It was the recommendation of Haigh’s former art history professor, Dr. Kristi Nelson, that turned the volunteer work into a job.

Her first day on the job, the first (and only) female director of the Cincinnati Art Museum addressed the staff on stage in the museum’s lecture hall. Katie saw her and said to herself, “I want to do that!” In that moment she knew she wanted to be a CEO of a world-class museum. She visualized her destiny right there and then, in that lecture hall inside the Cincinnati Art Museum…as an entry-level Clerk Typist.

She stayed for thirteen years. Soon she became a Registrar, the librarian of the museum’s collection. Later, as a courier and then Exhibitions Registrar, she handled the logistics associated with the movement and care of the permanent collection as well as managing the art when traveling to other venues for loan.

The Cincinnati Art Museum is the only repository in North America of Nabataean Art, or Provincial Roman art in the current country of Jordan, and a unique opportunity presented itself when Queen Noor of Jordan, while attending an event at the Cincinnati Art Museum, recommended that they curate an exhibit of Petra. 

Petra: Lost City of Stone was conceptualized, and Haigh traveled to Jordan multiple times, working with archaeologists and other lenders to negotiate a cultural exchange. She visited various sites around Jordan and collected works from caves in the desert, as well as from Irbid University and the American Center for Oriental Research. Haigh amassed more than 200 objects and oversaw the touring exhibit to five separate venues in North America. 

“It was such an incredible experience. I am so grateful I had this opportunity,” says Haigh, who either flew or rode with the artwork in the trucks. “The collection included loaned items from the Louvre, Frederic Edwin Church’s home, and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.”

In 2007, the position of Chief Registrar opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “I identified a lot of new opportunities because the IMA campus is so expansive. They have multiple historic properties, like the Lilly House, and at the time were acquiring the Miller House, and The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park was under development,” recalls Haigh.

Over her 15 years in the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Haigh’s responsibilities expanded as her roles changed. She went on to become the Deputy Director for Collections + Exhibitions, and then the COO in 2017. When Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette started as the new President and CEO last summer, Haigh was not looking for a new position. 

Leading the art side of the Newfields program was rewarding through fulfilling their commitment to the community. Haigh shares, “Through bringing in traditionally marginalized artists into the collection, and working with local artists on exhibitions, I developed the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in my new role at the Eiteljorg Museum. In essence, the job description and the subsequent leadership transition [at the IMA] required me to work differently than I had before and I am a better leader as a result.” 

At Newfields, she was contributing to its much needed change managing the curatorial team during the leadership transition and she enjoyed being a part of it. However a year ago, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art began its search for a new CEO. They started with 213 candidates and over a two and a half month period they narrowed their search down to six talented individuals, but one quickly rose to the top: Kathryn Haigh.

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New Native American Galleries

“Kathryn’s extensive experience in the art world really stood out. She not only has strength in management of an art museum, but also in museum operations — no one possessed all of her skills and experience,” says Eiteljorg Board member L.G. Edwards, who served as Chairman of the Search Committee. “She managed over 200 people at Newfields and oversaw the legal team, security, landscaping, historic sites, preservation, and overall operations. We are thrilled to have her lead the Eiteljorg.”

“The Board of the Eiteljorg is a dedicated group. They are so passionate and so involved, they really sold me on the job,” states Haigh, who was pursued for the CEO position at the Eiteljorg. “During my last interview, I thought ‘Yes! I could work here.’”

Haigh will face some challenges in her new digs. “The reality is: if a museum is to survive moving forward, we must be more relevant and continually identify who we serve, honor the Native American world, and increase our outreach,” adds Edwards.

After being part of the executive leadership team overseeing a pandemic, a crisis, and a leadership transition with Newfields, Haigh is more than up to the task. She joins the club of female CEOs of the major cultural organizations in Indianapolis: The Indiana State Museum, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Newfields, and The Indy Arts Council.

Touring exhibitions and new art commissions are part of Haigh’s vision, which is quickly congealing. The Eiteljorg is a progressive institution, featuring exhibits: Red | Black, and the Gay Cowboy. Haigh has a passion for sharing diverse artists, so she will easily build upon Eiteljorg’s reputation for inclusion, including working with the Latino art community via Arte Mexicano en Indiana.

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Nina Mason Pulliam Education Center Eiteljorg Museum

“My organization collaborated with Kathryn (while at Newfields) in the acquisition of the Big Piñata by a collaborative called Happy Rebels from Monterrey, Mexico. This work is now part of Newfields permanent collection,” says Eduardo Luna, who works at Big Car and leads Arte Mexicano en Indiana. “We are excited to see Kathryn leading the Eiteljorg, with whom we already have a strong relationship with, and I think that relationship will grow even stronger under Kathryn‘s leadership.”

While Haigh appreciates the Eiteljorg’s vision and strong foundation, it is up to her to expand their audience. “One of my goals is to increase the local, national, and international profile of the Eiteljorg. I am excited to work with the staff and the community to hear what stories we haven’t told. I want people to say, after seeing one of our exhibits, ‘You have to go to the Eiteljorg and see this!’”

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